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Death stalks a field of gems

Diamonds lure illicit miners who dodge bullets as regime thugs loot the rich trove of Zimbabwe's wild east.

December 04, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Dixon is a Times staff writer.

MUTARE, ZIMBABWE — Ronald seems a sober, respectable, church-on-Sunday type. Not the kind you'd find prospecting for diamonds here in Zimbabwe's wild east, a world of swaggering foreigners, dirty money and shoot-to-kill police. Not the sort who'd utter movie-script lines like this one: "You can make $15,000 or $20,000 in 30 minutes. But you can die within seconds."

Ronald, like the rest of Zimbabwe, has caught Africa's nastiest ailment -- diamond fever.

Sleepy towns such as Mutare have blinked awake to find their quiet streets buzzing with opportunists and black marketeers. Every day, illicit miners show up at the hospital with gaping bullet wounds and flimsy excuses for how they got them. Characters straight out of "Blood Diamond" cruise like sharks.

But the biggest sharks are nowhere to be seen: Officials of President Robert Mugabe's regime are looting the diamonds, industry sources and members of Zimbabwe's security services say.

Not only are they personally enriching themselves with one of the few natural resources still left in this ruined country, party fat cats may be finding life support in the diamond riches, Western diplomats and analysts fear, and gaining one more motive to cling to power.

"I think the political implications are very interesting," said a diplomat based in Harare, the capital. "Right now, the government's getting very little. If it can regularize this in some way, it could really prop things up for a while. It could give them some time to pursue their interests and just keep going."

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid political problems with Zimbabwe's government. Others who were willing to discuss the diamond trade declined to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Industry and security sources say government leaders have their own syndicates to dig and trade diamonds on the black market.

"The diamond game is the filthiest game in town and everyone's into it," says one source familiar with the gem industry. "It's not even semi- organized chaos. It's a bunch of thieves who backstab each other.

"A lot of leaders of the political regime are involved in trading. They have their own diggers and traders. But it's all to their personal account. They've all got a vested interest in chaos."

Regime cracks down

Diplomats, industry sources and some nongovernmental agencies believe the Marange field here could be one of the most significant diamond discoveries in decades.

Mugabe's regime is certainly behaving as if it is. In mid-November, the government sent in the military to crack down on unsanctioned miners. Soldiers even fired on miners from helicopters, local sources say. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says nearly 140 people have been killed.

One insider close to the ruling party said the scope of the crackdown was a measure of how significant the diamonds were to the regime.

"I don't think they would expend such resources if there was not something significant there," he says.

A prison official in Mutare said top figures in the ruling ZANU-PF party and security officials are running the illegal diamond trade here.

"The people in the police, prisons service, army and CIO [Central Intelligence Organization] have got groups of people who are working for those lieutenants, known as syndicates," says the official. "Usually these high-ranked officers in the armed forces are working for the ministers, governors and other ZANU-PF bigwigs."

The exploration rights at the Marange field were initially held by a subsidiary of the diamond giant De Beers, which let its license expire in early 2006. The rights were then taken up by a British company, African Consolidated Resources.

In late 2006, a rush began, driven by the large quantities of diamonds close to the surface -- making the site almost unique. The government promptly evicted the company in much the same manner it evicted white farmers from their land in 2000. Today, the site is ostensibly being developed by the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp., but most of the gems find their way onto the black market.

The British company continues to pursue a legal battle in the High Court over the right to mine the area, but in cases involving property rights in the past, High Court judges -- appointed by Mugabe -- have sided with the government.

Almost irresistible

In a country where the paralyzed economy offers few opportunities, diamonds are almost irresistible. Ronald, 31, who had given up working for an insurance firm for black-market currency dealing, was drawn into illegal mining. He gave only his first name, fearing possible jail.

Ronald says he saw five unsanctioned miners, including two women, shot to death by police on the diamond field late last month as they fled carrying large sacks of soil. One of those killed was a policeman mining illegally.

"It's like war," Ronald says.

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